Beacon of freedom bides her time champion bides her time

Inside Burma: The democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi tells of her latest clash with the junta

All his star charts and astrolabes failed to warn the official soothsayer used by Burma's generals of the horrendous gaffe he was about to commit.

Members of the ruling junta had gathered for the consecration of a Buddhist pagoda in Mandalay and the astrologer, Myaung, was down in a freshly dug hole, calculating the exact, auspicious moment when the foundation stone was to be laid. Finally, he called up to the generals: "Respected sirs, the time has come for you to leave your seats and step down."

As they rose decorously, a titter raced through the crowd. The Burmese have an ear for puns and Myaung's command was interpreted to have a double meaning: he was ordering the junta to resign and restore democracy. The generals were unamused: Myaung was demoted and now peddles horoscopes. Whatever divinations he may now be making about the regime, he keeps to himself.

It is not a matter he dares to share with foreign visitors. Yet in a country obsessed with horoscopes and numerology, talk in the Rangoon market-places is of shifting planets over the next two months which will usher in big political changes.

But instead of star-gazing, the Burmese have to glance no farther than down a certain street in Rangoon - University Avenue, home of the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, to reach the same conclusion.

She and her pro-democracy supporters are on a collision course with the junta, known as Slorc (the State Law and Order Restoration Council). Editorials in the military-run press vilify her as a "puppet princess" and "sorceress" unleashed against Burma by Britain. Many Burmese brush aside these accusations of Britain's colonial ambitions as ridiculous; they also find the slurs against Ms Suu Kyi to be repugnant.

At her rally last weekend, she cautioned some 6,000 supporters not to become angry over insults slung at her by the military press.

She told the Independent: "The Slorc say that we are provocative but look at the articles that appear in their newspaper. It tells more about them than me." In the house beside the lake where she spent six years under house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi spoke of her latest showdown with Slorc, which has passed a law that threatens her and her supporters with up to 20 years' jail for attending one of her pro-democracy rallies.

"We're flexible. May I suggest that Slorc try some friendly persuasion with us instead of using the hammers," she suggested. More than 120 members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been under arrest since last month, when Ms Suu Kyi called a party congress to draw up a new constitution. It was after this "provocation" that Slorc lashed back with draconian new laws.

"We're committed to preparing a draft constitution but we're down to earth. That means we don't have any intention of writing a constitution and shoving it down people's throats," she said. Pro-democracy activists want to reduce to military's sway over future civilian governments. Since her release from detention in July, the junta has snubbed Ms Suu Kyi, who realises that she could face re-arrest.

"It's a possibility. Maybe the Slorc is just biding its time. But even if I'm arrested, we'll continue our work for democracy. These threats are nothing new to us," she added, laughing.

After seeing how many of her supporters defied the Slorc's ban on her rallies, many Western observers in Rangoon predict that putting Ms Suu Kyi back in detention could lead to public unrest, which she opposes. She said: "I'd like to think that even without me, people would find a safe but effective way of carrying on our movement."

Many Rangoon diplomats claim that if the junta were to lock up the Nobel Peace Prize winner again, many countries which were willing to overlook the army's ugly traits - its widespread use of forced labour, its corruption and its human-rights violations - might withdraw their investment.

Since 1990, Burma's generals have only managed to attract $800m (pounds 550m) in investment, far less than their neighbours.

Ms Suu Kyi has hesitated on calling for fullscale international sanctions against the Slorc, since this would hurt the Burmese, who are among Asia's poorest people.

"When you look at our country, do not just see it as a land of economic possibilities ... Understand that we also want to live peacefully," Ms Suu Kyi explained to foreign businessmen recently. The economy is so mismanaged that even though Burma is one of the region's biggest rice producers, little boys at the Rangoon river docks trail after the stevedores, hoping to catch a few falling grains of rice from leaky sacks.

And now she says wistfully: "Maybe the Slorc doesn't understand that they have nothing to lose in talking to us. But perhaps they're too attached to all their medals and other trappings."

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